NASA's state-of-the-art Mars rover, Curiosity, set off safely for the red planet on Saturday morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), carrying the rover, lifted off on bard an Atlas V rocket at 10:02 am EST.
"The launch vehicle has given us a great injection into our trajectory, and we're on our way to Mars," says MSL project manager Peter Theisinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable and power positive."
After launch, the Atlas V gave a second burst from its upper stage, pushing it out of Earth orbit for the 352-million-mile journey to Mars.
"Our first trajectory correction maneuver will be in about two weeks," says Theisinger. "We'll do instrument checkouts in the next several weeks and continue with thorough preparations for the landing on Mars and operations on the surface."
The journey will take several months, with a sky-crane being used to land Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater on August 6 next year. It will then spend two years investigating whether the region has ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.
Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers of the mountain, indicating a wet history.
Curiosit will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, which will then be sieved and parceled out into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.
Curiosity carries 10 science instruments. Some are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks' elemental composition from a distance, and an X-ray diffraction instrument for definitive identification of minerals in powdered samples.
To haul and wield its science payload, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as its predecessors Spirit or Opportunity - meaning it's too heavy to use airbags to cushion its landing. Part of the MSL spacecraft is a rocket-powered descent stage that will lower the rover on tethers as the rocket engines control the speed of descent.
"We are very excited about sending the world's most advanced scientific laboratory to Mars," says NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
"MSL will tell us critical things we need to know about Mars, and while it advances science, we'll be working on the capabilities for a human mission to the Red Planet and to other destinations where we've never been."